The secret to writing a bestseller

In his ground-breaking 2006 novel J-Pod, Douglas Coupland reveals on the second-to-last page a recipe for writing books people will want to read:

“Yesirree, nothing could possibly go wrong with everything being so good.

“But of course, in books, good is boring.

“Good is a snoozer.

“Good makes people close the covers and never reopen them.”

—Douglas Coupland 2006, J-Pod, Bloomsbury, London, p.448

These words are posted in response to this week’s  Trifextra Reading Challenge, which asked participants to find a 33-word quotation of great writing they admire. If you want to join the challenge, you can find the link here.

If you think about your favourite books, very few—if any—of them will be all about happy events. The interest comes from tension, adversity, bad luck, conflict, bad choices, addiction, indulging in any of the seven deadly sins and so on. In fact, a happy ending is only so when there’s been a lot of unhappiness along the way.

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22 thoughts on “The secret to writing a bestseller

    • Exactly. I think it was Graham Greene who said “An unhappy childhood is a writer’s gold mine” (though it has been attributed to several other writers). Still, I would wish every child a happy childhood. At least with human imagination, we can empathise with others, thus learn to write realistically about adversity, even if we’ve had happy childhoods. I wonder if there are any fictional books that are only about happy events. I can’t think of any. Even nursery rhymes are about characters falling off walls and down hills, being blind, cutting off animals’ tails and dying of the plague!

      • Yup. Look how dark the meaning behind ring around the rosie is! The original fairytales are often brutal too. I remember sleeping beauty being raped in her sleep by the prince and baring him children while in her coma while he was married to another woman. Charming my arse.

      • Yup. Look how dark the meaning behind ring around the rosie is! The original fairytales are often brutal too. I remember sleeping beauty being raped in her sleep by the prince and baring him children while in her coma while he was married to another woman. Charming my arse.

    • So true, Corinne. Way back when I was training to be a journalist, I did work experience at a radio station. My job was to cut the stories to make them fit to the second for the newsreader. Anyway, the news editor came in on my first morning, grinning and rubbing his hands together. He had an easy lead that day as a big story had just broken: “There’s nothing like a good homicide to start the day with,” he said, delighted. I was shocked, especially at his use of the term “good homicide”.

  1. I think I could spend my next ten thousand words of my life talking about this. I had a reallllllly long comment ready to go but I retracted it in favour of the version you are reading now. I will simply say that I completely, wholeheartedly acknowledge that TV, newspapers/newscasts, many books, etc., subscribe to Coupland’s notion. However, I completely, wholeheartedly disagree that Good deserves the disrespect it is getting.
    “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death.” I will always throw my lot in with the Anne Frank-like optimists who believe in a better world, as opposed to those who hold up “if it bleeds, it leads” as being the roadmap going forward.
    I have a manifesto at the tip of my tongue but will stop for now. I sincerely thank you for a very provocative and interesting quote.

    • Yes, I agree with your points. I get sick of the “news” showing only stories about drunken footballers, warring neighbours and the like. Give us some good news!
      In J-Pod, I think Coupland is being deliberately provocative to make his point, which is partly to critique modern mediated life for its ridiculousness and its reliance on negativity. I guess the idea that conflict makes a better book though is central to most books. Even books that have optimism as a theme, such as Pollyanna and Anne of Green Gables, have hardships and challenges that must be overcome. I guess the message is that we can overcome them.
      Have you read Alexander McCall Smith’s No. One Ladies’ Detective Agency series? It is wonderfully life-affirming and looks to the past to help us live better in the present.

      • Fair enough. I never meant to say that the protagonist/antagonist model is faulty or wrong. Of course, dramatic tension is important in storytelling. I was commenting more on the general notion that Goodness in our world is becoming viewed as being unworthy of our attention. GIve me a “Tuesdays with Morrie” any day over anything about the Kardashians or Jersey Shore. Thank you for your very considered and measured reply. Enjoy the rest of your weekend. 🙂

        • Couldn’t agree more with you. I loved Tuesdays with Morrie, and also The Five People You Meet in Heaven. I loved Albom’s latest book, The Time Keeper, too. I enjoy entertainment and celebrity news to a point—and spent years as an entertainment reporter myself. I do not want to hear about the Kardashians, however!

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